Through MBS group lessons and storytelling, Jörg Freidanck offers a class of high school students the chance to reacquaint themselves with the pleasures of learning.
Current MBS Foundation student Jörg Freidanck has taught for over 35 years, which means that over 15,000 students have passed through his high school classes in physical education, and some 2,000 students have learned Judo from him. Since studying with MBS, Jörg has begun leading MBS group classes for the faculty of the high school where he teaches. He also offers group classes to the public in his town. At the end of the 2012-2013 school year, Jörg had the opportunity to present Moshe Feldenkrais’ work to a group of high school students as part of the school’s annual week of extracurricular activities and workshops. How he did so was both a natural extension of the principles taught at MBS Academy and a creative response to his class’s particular circumstances.
Jörg wanted to offer students the chance to experience, first-hand, the power of a learning environment that is both pleasurable and personal.
Jörg felt that both the group (all students between sixteen and eighteen) and the occasion (a full week of six-hour lessons) warranted something slightly different from a standard group MBS class. The idea for what would become “Feldenkrais and Fairytales” came to Jörg while substituting. As a substitute teacher, he was struck by how undeniably bored the students seemed, and how profoundly uninterested they were in the subject matter, at least as it was presented in their textbooks. He thought of how the same students could maintain absolute attention when doing things they found personally engaging: reading up on their favorite bands, primping in front of a mirror, or taking in football statistics. For the day’s lesson, though, the entire class looked desperate to wriggle out of their chairs and head to some more appealing pursuit.
“There are a lot of things, surely, that they are really interested in,” Jörg reflected. Wanting to open up a class discussion on something more engaging, he looked at the room of teenagers before him and instinctively his mind went to something of perennial interest over centuries: fairytales. As Jörg would discover, though, very few of his students knew many fairytales, and some knew none at all. They knew the stories of television shows and films, but nothing of the fairytales from the past.
Jörg makes a sharp distinction between fairytales and most of the modern narratives that play out on large and small screens. “Fairytales move the mind,” he says. “These stories are hundreds of years old, and yet they can still be interesting. And there is something essentially true to them.”
Fairytales are also typically told in a pleasurable context, in which the listener’s personal experience of the story is valued. That scenario couldn’t be further from the dry-as-toast atmosphere of a traditional classroom. So, when it came time to plan his contribution to the school’s annual extracurricular week, Jörg wanted to offer students the chance to experience, first-hand, the power of a learning environment that is both pleasurable and personal. Jörg looked to fairytales and to the group lessons developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, as he had learned them through MBS Academy.
Jörg planned the week-long workshop so that students would alternate between participating in group MBS lessons and listening to him tell “fairytales, Zen stories, and other stories that touch the soul.” The students would do a lesson, stand up and walk around, sensing differences, and then gather to listen to a story. The rhythm of the class, alternating back and forth between the two, created a sense of lightness and freshness in spite of a full-time schedule that would ordinarily be excessive for an introductory MBS workshop.
Jörg describes the power of a good story to endure in personal or collective memory: “I thought about how I can tell you one story, and you forget it in five minutes. Another one, you remember for one week, and then it is gone. Another story you won’t forget for thirty years, because it is such a good story… and then there are a lot of stories you never forget: they can last thousands of years.” In the same way, Jörg wanted to use group classes in MBS to show his students their potential to learn new things and remember them. He knew his students had the best chance at such fresh learning experiences if he created lessons that kept them personally engaged, curious and well within their own ranges of ease and comfort. As it turned out, these same parameters had much in common with the activity of hearing or reading a fairytale. Participating in an MBS class or listening to a good story could not be further from the mentality of cramming for a test or of ingesting facts by rote memorization – and Jörg had a hunch that his students might appreciate and benefit from just a taste of the contrast.
Jörg’s Road to MBS
Like many practitioners, Jörg first came across Feldenkrais and MBS thanks to his own injuries. As he describes it, “I got into a lot of trouble with my own health, because I did everything to the limits and would try to go even faster, and so I damaged my own body.” In 1984, Jörg injured his knee while in the Philippines. The injury came as an interruption to his athletic and martial arts training, requiring him to use crutches for most of a year and to undergo a less-than-successful operation.
“Before (the injury),” Jörg recalls, “I was the sort of man who people would go to the other side of the street to avoid! I could take three people on this side, three on that side, and I fought against six people at once. It was a harsh time! So when I had this problem with my leg, everyone thought, ‘Oh no, now this will just destroy you, because you were such a strong man and you always did so much athletics.’”
Instead, Jörg thought to himself, “Okay, I have two legs, so I will go with the other leg.” Unfortunately, he hadn’t yet thought to look at his fundamental pattern of pushing his own limits, hard. In short order, Jörg had damaged his other leg, too. He recalls, “the doctor told me, ‘This is the end. There’s no chance.’” At the time, there was no possibility for a knee replacement, so Jörg had to look for another alternative. A friend put him in touch with an Ayurvedic doctor.
“He was a real master, who talked to me and gave me some oil and some powders, so that afterwards I could walk on my knee, not run, but I could go. I thought that was okay and I liked it, but then I went back to my job and it was the same story. I did too much. In winter, I picked up a very heavy piece of wood, I think six kilos. There was nobody else there to help me, and it was a wonderful piece of wood! But then two of my lumbar vertebrae went “click click,” and I had to lie on my back, unable to do anything.”
After enduring a long spell of restriction to his bed, Jörg happened to meet Veit Sigmund, a Feldenkrais practitioner who had learned from Mia Segal. At the time, Jörg was working at the same school as Veit, and so Veit began to give him lessons. “Veit was the first to really help me,” Jörg recalls. “Others would say, ‘Okay, stand up’ after a treatment (and I could), but after some time, the problem would come back.”
In fact, learning from Veit Sigmund was Jörg’s second exposure to Feldenkrais lessons. He recalls having been exposed to the method fifteen or twenty years prior, but not being sufficiently interested at the time. After his various injuries, though, Jörg was primed, and he began to attend regular group lessons with Veit in the mid-90’s. When MBS began the 2011-2014 Foundation training in Bad Toelz, Jörg was eager to train. He made an arrangement with his high school so he could take off some time to complete the Foundation training and, in exchange, he would offer regular group classes to his colleagues. As of Fall 2013, some thirty teachers gather in the school’s main gymnasium during their free class periods to participate in Jörg’s weekly lessons. Some retired teachers even return just to participate.
Learning from Stillness
From his lessons with fellow teachers, Jörg had already seen how quickly students could experience benefits from group classes, even from short lessons in the middle of a workday. He was curious to see how his teenaged students would respond.
When the first day of their extracurricular week arrived, Jörg had a room full of sixteen to eighteen-year-old students who had never heard of or experienced Feldenkrais and Mind Body Studies. They had a full week ahead of them, six hours each day. Initially, Jörg was concerned whether the length of the class would be too much for the students. “The main problem was to have students lie quietly and peacefully for six hours. For that, it was nice to have these kinds of stories, which absolutely made it quiet and (had the students) thinking about what was nice and enjoyable.”
What initially appeared as a challenge turned out to be the greatest success of the “Feldenkrais and Fairytales” workshop. Jörg noted the change in his students as they started to enjoy the stillness and the opportunity for observation within a decidedly different kind of atmosphere. Jörg contrasts their usual lives with the kind of experience available during the workshop. In a normal day, he points out, “What do they do? Go home, turn on the TV, turn on the radio. But silence? People become afraid inside of silence. So in a lot of their activities, people are running away from themselves – and they have no chance.”
The lessons that Feldenkrais developed offer a structure in which some degree of this quiet self-observation is possible and real learning can take place. Even among teenagers, Jörg points out that the upperclassmen typically contend with huge amounts of stress. He explains, “I ask them, ‘What do you do with your own stress?’ You can work out a lot, you can scream, you can do some exercise… but then what?” He found that they had very few answers. The students who practiced sport also developed surprisingly many injuries. As had been the case for Jörg, athletics offered some students release, but solely training, without an awareness practice, could also exacerbate problems. As when Jörg eventually addressed his knee injuries through Veit Sigmund’s lessons, it was through uncovering his underlying patterns that he began to experience personal choice and ease.
Jörg notes the fundamental difference between education that is oriented towards acquiring information and education that aims at personal development and discovery. He is emphatic, praising the value of encountering some stillness: “This is the way to be a human!” Jörg recalls a computer course he once did, in which he had a very clear experience of realizing that something completely new was possible. He compares the first exposure to Feldenkrais to that. “They (the students) now know something is possible with their bodies that they didn’t know before. I think they may forget the movements, but they will never forget there is something positive to relaxation, to discovery. That will spread.”
They (the students) now know something is possible with their bodies that they didn’t know before. I think they may forget the movements, but they will never forget there is something positive to relaxation, to discovery. That will spread.
In the process of planning and teaching his workshop, Jörg found additional connections between the group MBS lessons and fairytales. The class began with major, simple movements and explored the possibility of differentiation. In a parallel sense, they looked at certain major themes and stories and then explored variations among different cultures. Over the course of the week, students shifted from an external focus to a more inward-looking orientation, both in doing the movements and hearing the stories.
For some of the students, the week was particularly useful as an extension of their physical education. The class included several competitive gymnasts, many of whom had various pains and injuries. Gradually, the athletes felt their difficulties and restrictions dissolve. At the end of the week, the students had the opportunity to wrap up the workshop and go watch a school performance. Instead, they asked Jörg to continue with the group lessons. The gymnasts asked whether a regular class could be arranged. There was a standing ovation.
Perhaps most of all, the weeklong workshop offered – possibly for the first time – a direct experience of the fundamental connection between pleasure and learning. When asked what he thought his students got out of their week of “Feldenkrais and Fairytales”, Jörg didn’t hesitate to answer. “That school can be fantastic.”
To contact Jörg: